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Gomez seldom the deal maker

A 13-year career in Boston’s private equity sector made Gabriel Gomez a millionaire and gave him the business credentials he often cites on the campaign trail. He says he knows what it takes to help companies and employees “prosper and thrive.”

But in a business where executives who buy and sell companies at a profit become the stars, the Republican candidate for US Senate participated in relatively few deals and never earned a promotion to partner. He would ultimately shift to a marketing role at his firm.

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A Globe review of Gomez’s nine years at Advent International, an elite private equity firm, found that he was directly involved in just half a dozen companies and helped lead only one of those investments. The one deal he touts, Lululemon Athletica Inc., is one Advent credits to other executives.

Gomez has refused to discuss his investing career in any detail. He declined numerous requests by the Globe for interviews about his business experience, answering questions only briefly at one campaign stop before walking away from reporters. Last week, he shouted over his shoulder, “I’m happy to compare resumes with Congressman Markey,’’ shortly before stepping into his car.

On his website, Gomez tells voters he helped pension funds invest for workers’ retirement and built regional businesses into household names. But he also had a role in applying common private equity strategies that are often controversial with voters — piling debt on companies and laying off workers or moving jobs overseas. Gomez’s involvement in a company called Synventive Molding Solutions was a case in point.

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Just a year into his tenure at Advent in 2005, Gomez was part of a team that bought the Peabody company from another investment firm. Started by local entrepreneurs in the 1970s, Synventive makes machinery to pipe hot plastic into molds for car bumpers and electronics.

Synventive had 550 employees when Advent bought it. By 2009, the economy was in trouble, and two of Synventive’s largest customers, General Motors and Chrysler, had filed for bankruptcy. The company’s head count fell to 500, in part due to layoffs in Peabody. At the same time, Synventive was expanding rapidly in China as it shifted some manufacturing and engineering functions there and to Germany.

“It was a good company, except things changed a lot over the years,’’ said David Scatterday, a mechanical engineer who worked at Synventive for 20 years before being laid off, with a year’s severance. “You lost a lot of the good qualities you had with the original owners.” And, he recalled, “A lot of business went to China.”

That the jobs went overseas is acknowledged by federal officials. In March 2009, 18 laid-off Synventive workers, many over age 50, were offered government aid to retrain, specifically because their jobs were being moved overseas, according to the Department of Labor.

In a brief interview, Gomez denied shifting Synventive jobs to China. “There weren’t jobs moved overseas,” he said, explaining that the company simply expanded where business was growing. “The biggest producers in the automotive industry back then were over in Asia.’’

While Gomez served on its board, Synventive pursued large, multi-year tax breaks in China, including two years free of corporate and local income taxes and 50 percent tax breaks for five years through 2012, according to the company’s financial statements.

A spokesman for Advent said the Asian expansion was not aimed at replacing American workers with lower-cost labor, but rather at supplying Asian manufacturers close to their own facilities. Growing revenues in China helped Synventive weather the US recession, the spokesman said, and saved American jobs over the long run. The company had 770 employees globally when Advent sold it.

But the deal would fail for Advent in the way that matters most in the private equity world: It lost money for the firm and its investors. Struggling with $160 million in debt in 2010, Synventive was taken over by another investment firm the next year. Advent’s stake was slashed in the transaction, described as a “troubled debt restructuring” in securities filings, resulting in a loss for the firm.

Democrats have seized on Gomez’s reticence to talk about his private equity record, and he has deflected pressure from an advocacy group to disclose his investments. “If you put forward your principal qualification as a businessman, you need to have some explanation of, ‘What did you do in business?’ ” the state Democratic Party chairman, John Walsh, said recently.

Speaking to voters, Gomez describes himself first as “a Navy guy.” When he talks about business, Gomez sticks to broad brush strokes on his professional life since leaving the military in 1996 and earning his Harvard MBA.

“I’ve been working with companies, helping them grow and be successful and seeing just what the impact of a lot of this legislation is coming out of D.C.,” Gomez said at a small medical-device company in Wellesley last month. “We should be creating jobs. We should be creating an environment in the economy where companies can be more competitive.”

Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University, said it’s puzzling why Gomez isn’t more vigorously pitching his business experience to voters. “He repeats over and over again that he was a Navy SEAL, and he does mention that he was in the private sector. But he never connects the private sector experience with what he’s going to do to help improve the economy,” Berry said.

Gomez knows well how a bad economy can drag down companies — especially when coupled with a heavy debt burden. He saw the combination up close again at Keystone Automotive Operations Inc.

Gomez was named a director at Keystone near the end of Advent’s involvement in the company — five years after selling most of its stake to Boston’s Bain Capital for $440 million. Advent had by then tripled its money on the deal. Gomez, joining the board in 2008 with a number of Bain directors, was charged with overseeing Advent’s remaining 10 percent interest.

While Gomez was a director, Keystone consolidated facilities, merged call centers, and “implemented a cost reduction program throughout the company,’’ according to filings with securities regulators. Total employment at Keystone fell from 1,800 to 1,444 over three years.

In one round of cutbacks, 22 accounting workers in Pennsylvania were let go, according to a Labor Department report, because their work was shifted to a foreign country. In 2011, struggling with about $400 million in debt, the Exeter, Pa.-based company filed for bankruptcy. Bain lost a bundle, and Advent lost its remaining stake.

These episodes did not burnish Gomez’s resume. But neither can they be blamed entirely on him. Advent’s investment committee oversees all major decisions, and no single person shoulders responsibility for a deal.

Colleagues say they liked Gomez and were drawn to his life story — successful son of an immigrant family, ambitious Navy SEAL, and a hard worker. Even without an illustrious investment record, he earned $10.1 million from 2006 through 2011, according to tax filings released by the campaign. His personal investments exceed $11.3 million, according to his financial disclosure report.

In 2011, in his mid-40s and with political ambitions, Gomez was still not a partner at Advent. He held the lower rank of principal and by the end of his tenure was devoting most of his time to marketing and forging relationships with investment bankers, rather than doing deals, according to people associated with the firm.

“Gabriel was a highly valued colleague, who was widely respected throughout our firm. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors,’’ Advent said in a statement. Gomez resigned from the firm in February to run for Senate.

Of his time at Advent, Gomez said he is most proud of his involvement with the firm’s investment in Lululemon. But Advent gave him no credit for that deal on its website, citing several other executives instead.

Gomez’s main contribution appears to have been introducing former Reebok International Ltd. executive Bob Meers to Advent, which later named him interim chief executive at Lululemon. Advent made about seven times its money on the $93 million investment, taking the company public just two years later, in 2007. A Vancouver, British Columbia, business that had 20 stores and $70 million in revenue when Advent bought it today operates 215 stores generating $1.4 billion in revenue.

“It’s just a great success story,” Gomez said. “We turned a Canadian company into an American company.”

Indeed, Lululemon now employs 6,383 people, 53 percent of them in the United States, in retail stores, distribution and other functions, according to a company report in February. Canada has 40 percent of the workers; the rest are outside North America.

The manufacturing work also left Canada; just 3 percent now takes place in North America. As the company has boomed, most of the manufacturing has gone to China and Southeast Asia, according to company filings.

In a debate this week in Springfield with his opponent, US Representative Edward J. Markey, Gomez cited the need for new trade agreements to help bring manufacturing jobs to the United States. “We were a manufacturing hub before,’’ Gomez said of Western Massachusetts. “We need to return back to a manufacturing hub.”

But at a campaign event last week, when the Globe asked about his record of helping create jobs in China, rather than in the United States, Gomez said, “That’s not true.” Then he slammed his car door and an aide drove him away.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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